Xconomist of the Week: Gilt Founders Say Friends Can Work Together

At Xconomy’s event yesterday, New York’s Venture Emergence, members of Gilt Groupe’s founding team fascinated a standing-room-only audience with the tale of how, in just four years, they grew from a scrappy startup to one of the most successful e-commerce sites on the Web. Co-founders Alexandra Wilkis Wilson, who is one of our Xconomists, and Alexis Maybank insisted that one of the keys to their success is their close friendship. “Without our very strong relationship, we could have never gotten this business launched so fast,” Wilkis Wilson told the crowd.

But wait, doesn’t that advice run counter to what just about what every business expert says? One should never work with family or friends, right? Wrong, say the Gilt Girls. In fact, they’re so confident in the mixing of friends and business that they co-wrote a book about their entrepreneurship experience, By Invitation Only: How We Built Gilt and Changed the Way Millions Shop, which will be released in April.

The book’s title is partly a reference to Gilt’s business model: It sells fashions, home décor, and travel services in limited-time “flash sales” to people who are invited to be members on the site. But it’s also an apt description of how the co-founders have managed the business from day one—with a strong focus on making sure they have the right people in place to manage a high-growth startup.

Wilkis Wilson and Maybank have been together through both good times and bad. The good: They’ve raised about $218 million in venture capital and are widely expected to pull off a successful IPO later this year or early next year. The bad: Gilt confirmed last week it was laying off 90 people and embarking on a restructuring.

In a chat with Xconomy after their panel presentation, Maybank and Wilkis Wilson downplayed the bad times. “We scaled this business so quickly from zero employees to 900,” Maybank said. “Internal restructuring is part of the normal process in a fast-growing business.” As for how their friendship has helped them endure the ups and downs of entrepreneurship, Wilkis Wilson said … Next Page »

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